I have to admit, I’ve been in a bit of creative rut for a while. It’s not that I’d lost the drive to travel and explore, in fact, quite the opposite; The road has been calling me louder than ever! Recently, I had found myself settling in a a routine. For me, this translates into holing up at home and not really doing anything. It was making me feel old, bored, and unmotivated. I don’t do well with routine. As Paulo Coelho said, “If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine; it is lethal.” I’ve felt this way before. For me, the only cure is to hike. This time it was the 650km jaunt along the Camino Portuguese starting from Lisbon, and heading north till Santiago de Compostela.
I’ve hiked the Camino Frances numerous times. Let me start by saying, the Portuguese Way is different. There is much more road walking, especially for the first 3 days out of Lisbon, and the camino spirit of comradery is harder to find. On the Camino Frances, you are constantly meeting new people and can change camino families dozens of times. On the Portugese Way, you pretty well see the same people for weeks, especially before Porto, where accommodations are fewer and farther between. Thankfully, my camino family consisted of a bunch of Italians who could not have been more fun to travel with.
I’m an early riser, often out the door hiking by 6:00am at the latest. I hiked during August where the days frequently hit the low to mid 30s. Leaving early, even when the mornings were navigating the urban sprawl of larger towns, gave me an opportunity to enjoy the trail in silence, listening to the rhythmic crunch of gravel between my feet, the gentle bird songs of swallows warbling, and the scent of freshly toiled fields. By the time I reached Santarem, the first major town since Lisbon, I had found my hiking legs, and the urban sprawl was finally giving way to country lanes.
After a steep decent out of Santarem under the rising sun, the next few days trails toward Tomar were beautiful. Small villages appeared, small cafes offered refreshments, and occasionally I saw a yellow arrow pointing north. I began to relax, thinking no further than the next 5-10km. The dull headache, that had formed from tight shoulders at home, disappeared. I remember eating cold pizza, left over from the night before, as I walked through fields of corn on a chilly morning, my breath hanging in the air. I thought to myself that I am happiest when life is at its simplest. At home, I struggle to remember what I had for dinner the day before. On the trail though, I am present. It’s bliss.
Tomar is beautiful. I arrived early, checked into a hostel, showered and went exploring. Tomar, with its incredible templar monastery towering over the town turned up the camino vibe another notch. The Portuguese Way, especially before Porto, still is far from the electric vibe of the Frances, but Tomar felt historical. It was a page from the same book in history. Tomar is also the place where the trails to/from Fatima join the Way. If I was to hike the Portuguese Way again, I would start in Fatima and skip the 3-4 days of urban slog from Lisbon.
Tomar to Coimbra offered glimpses of rural life, interspersed with some more remote trails. I lost myself in the rhythm of the hike. Every morning I woke early, packed my belongings and walked. Everything I needed was right here. My mind was still and gave me the time and space to make plans, and most importantly, make changes. In my backpack, I carried a stone where I had written a quote “change nothing, and nothing changes.” I needed to get out of my rut, and going home to the same routine wasn’t an option. I knew I had to make some changes, but I had to stop being afraid of letting go; I felt trapped. Mile after mile, my mind shed it’s insecurities, and I began to form a plan. By the time I arrived in Coimbra, I felt like a weight had lifted.
Out of all of the cities along the Portuguese Way, Coimbra, was by far my favorite. The town, home to one of the world’s oldest universities, is full of ancient, twisting laneways and buildings so full of character that I could have stayed a week exploring every doorway. At night, we ate sautéed mushrooms, sardines, pork so tender it fell off the bone, and washed it all down with local wine. We walked off our meal as the sun set, bringing with it a cool breeze and the melodic strumming of Fado music played by a local band who had set up on stone stairway in the middle of town. By the time the sun had dipped below the horizon, the streets were filled with locals eating gelato and locals walking their dogs.
The next stretch I had Porto on my mind and found myself a little introspective. I hiked in a bubble switching my mind off and putting one foot in front of the other. Just as the lands had finally become more rural with fog dappled mornings wandering through trails of towering eucalyptus trees often making me feel as I had taken a wrong turn and ended up back home in Australia, they turned urban again. We walked across broad bridges battling trucks and exhaust fumes before switching across train tracks and perilous road crossings. A day before Porto, we spent the night on the gym floor of a fire station, curled up on old foam mattresses with the station’s dog barking into the early hours. I
On the 12th way, we arrived in Porto. I had briefly visited here before, but this time I felt like I had earned it. I walked across the river, smiling so broadly my jaw hurt. I walked pain free, both physically and mentally. I’d been hiking for almost two weeks averaging about 30km a day. I’d finally stopped comparing everything to the Camino Frances. The Portuguese Way is just different from the Frances. You can’t compare them. You just have to let go and walk. Only then will you find your rhythm. That evening I checked into a hotel for a rest day and spent the evening watching the world go by. I had made changes. I felt free. I felt genuine. Before I had even put my pack on the bed, I felt like I wanted to keep walking forever.